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American has long had a reputation for releasing the fewest number of saver-level award seats among major US carriers. We have seen examples of increased award space over the last year after executives promised to improve saver award availability, but I recently encountered a new phenomenon when searching for a flight that’s a clear indication of how far American will go to prevent you from using your miles.

I have a trip booked to New Mexico in April, and our outbound flights are locked in. However, our return flights are still undecided. I’ve been looking to redeem AAdvantage miles out of Albuquerque (ABQ) on either Sunday April 21 or Monday April 22 back into West Palm Beach (PBI), where our outbound flight departs, and thus where our car will be. Unfortunately, award space hasn’t opened up on any routings that work or even make sense:

Double connection and short red-eye? No thanks.

Just for fun, I wanted to see if American’s website was (for some reason) not showing all applicable award flights, so I searched segment-by-segment. And I was shocked to see the results.

On April 21, all but one of the carrier’s nonstop flights from Albuquerque to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) have saver awards available for three passengers:

And on that same date, the evening flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to West Palm Beach also has saver award inventory for three travelers:

However, when I search for award flights for the entire journey (from ABQ to PBI), I am given a single, one-stop itinerary:

That’s right. American is willing to open up saver award space on multiple frequencies from ABQ to DFW, but if you want to add a connecting flight to PBI, the carrier forces you into an early morning departure with a nine-hour layover. Not exactly my idea of enhancing award availability.

I found another example in March for someone looking to fly to Colorado to go skiing. On Saturday March 2, I see saver level awards for two travelers on multiple flights from Orlando (MCO) to American’s hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD). There are also saver awards on multiple flights from both of those cities to Denver (DEN). However, searching for MCO-DEN gives you 10 results, with only one going through DFW and none connecting in ORD. That single itinerary gives you a whopping 13 hours and 13 minutes between flights:

The other options connect in either Charlotte (CLT) or Philadelphia (PHL), and the shortest layover of the itineraries is eight hours and 15 minutes.

Note that this is different from what we wrote about in December 2017. In that case, American started making more award inventory available but used “married segment” logic. This essentially means that a flight is available for awards only as part of a larger itinerary but isn’t available for those looking to fly nonstop; for example, you could book a flight from Tampa (TPA) to New York-LaGuardia (LGA) via Charlotte (CLT) but can’t book just the TPA-CLT leg. It’s an award-travel application of pricing algorithms, where a nonstop flight to or from an airline’s hub is more expensive than taking that exact same flight as part of a connecting trip.

From what I can see, this is a new development, one that I’ll call “reverse married segment” logic. In this case, the carrier is making the nonstop flights available at the saver level but won’t allow you to combine them on a single itinerary. This is a real blow to anyone who lives outside of an American hub and hopes to use AAdvantage miles for connecting flights through a hub that don’t require a massive layover.

I called AAdvantage customer service to see if a phone agent could combine one of the more convenient ABQ-DFW flights with the evening flight from DFW to PBI. After initially thinking she could, the agent wasn’t able to actually ticket the reservation. I tried again a couple of days later and even escalated to a supervisor, but she wasn’t able to help. Note that this was the AAdvantage Gold line too, and the only explanation provided was that “prices and availability are based on origin and destination.”

We reached out to American for a response to what we found and were given the following statement:

“The system is accurately assigning availability using marriage logic … As a reminder, we made changes last December (2017) to award availability in order to provide more award availability on connecting / flow itineraries. The change was made to mimic the same functionality we use for revenue tickets, which is subject to marriage logic across the journey, and resulted in substantial increase in award availability for connecting itineraries. You’re seeing the 6:40a connecting to the 6:40p because of demand, similar to what you see on any number of itineraries.”

Here’s what I can reconcile with this statement. The connecting itinerary above (ABQ-DFW-PBI with the 9+ hour layover) isn’t actually available as a revenue ticket on AA.com. For it to appear as an option, I need to “force” it using a Multi-City search. In addition, these flights aren’t exactly breaking the bank. The nonstop flight from DFW to PBI on April 21 is currently pricing at $213 per person, while the connecting itinerary I’d prefer (with a 3:01pm departure from ABQ) is available for $219 in Basic Economy or $249 in regular economy.

From my perspective, American is expanding award availability but is doing so (in certain cases) on flights that very few if any rational travelers would book. The carrier can then claim that it’s opening up more award seats at the saver level, with little to no impact on revenue. That’s frustrating at best and under-handed at worst.

Bottom Line

American has thrown up roadblocks to using miles in the past, and while this may not be new, it’s the first time I’ve encountered it. Call me crazy, but I find it disheartening that the carrier will allow you to redeem miles on two individual flights that (together) would create a legal and perfectly logical routing but then won’t let you combine them on a single award without requiring an insanely long connection. I hope that this will remain the exception rather than the norm for one-stop American awards, but I’m not optimistic.

Have you seen this phenomenon with American awards before?

Know before you go.

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